There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.
Romney went on: "[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
This is certainly an inartful way of attempting to make the point that Romney was attempting to make. It's also unclear what point he was actually attempting to make; if he believes that 47% of Americans are dependent on the government for their livelihood, he's simply mistaken.
The Romney campaign responded almost immediately with a boilerplate statement about how Romney's tax and economic plans will help all Americans, government beneficiary or no:
Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy. As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney's plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.
It's likely an offshoot of the conservative talking point that 47% of Americans don't pay income taxes. Which is true! But unfortunately, a lot of conservatives make the leap from there to claim that total tax burden isn't high enough on middle- and lower-income people (without taking into account things like sales and payroll taxes) and that either they should pay more taxes or we should slash social spending.
Moreover, as Ramesh Ponnuru wrote at National Review, it's just not helpful to base an ideology off the theory that there are too many "moochers" in society.
There is a certain plausibility to the claim that the more people fall off the income-tax rolls, the more will support federal activism. But there is a series of evidentiary hurdles that this claim cannot begin to overcome. There is no evidence that changes in the percentage of people who pay income tax has had any effect on public opinion, let alone a large one. The U.S. that began the Democrats’ 40-year reign in the House of Representatives in 1954 had roughly the same percentage of non-payers of income tax (24.9) as the U.S. that ended it in 1994 (24.4). A relatively large proportion of the citizenry paid income taxes in the early 1960s. It didn’t stop the Great Society from being enacted. The number of people who pay no income taxes moved up fast between 2006 and 2010, which has helped set off conservative alarms. But voters turned sharply right between the elections of those two years.
It would be a different conversation if we were to talk about the people whose livelihood actually depends on government social safety net programs. It's not 47% of people. "Entitlement spending," as broadly defined as a share of income, is only at 18% (though that has been rising in recent years). Romney could make the argument that that is too much, but that's not the argument he's making.
If there were truly 47% of Americans who believed that they were benefits of government programs and refused to vote for any politician who worked to curtail the welfare state, America would be in a precarious position. Romney's just wrong on the facts here.
There have been progressives writing that this is a moment that Romney is going to regret. It's possible - but it's not the case that the candidate was making grand claims about morality and government. He certainly seemed to be on a rambling rant where he is wrong on the merits of who pays, who benefits and, perhaps most of all, who's willing to vote on these issues.
A point could be made on the total progressivity of the taxes-and-transfers part of the federal budget. Ed Morrissey noted awhile ago that, during the recession, the average household now receives more in benefits than pays in taxes to the federal government. That's not to say, as Romney seemed to, that these households are dependent on the government or see government help as necessary to their livelihoods. The federal government does have, however, a progressive tax-and-transfer state that benefits a very large number of people.
"The 47% moment" has been seized upon this afternoon as some grand revelation about Mitt Romney's disdain for moochers and will likely be used to paint him as a kind of Ayn Rand Objectivist, turning his nose up at society's leeches and moochers. That's not the case; if the simplest explanation is the best, it's that Mitt Romney has his facts wrong based on some logical leaps involving the total number of federal income taxpayers.
Another key component of our proposal is to provide America's families with a long overdue break by practically doubling the personal exemption. Indeed, our plan would drop virtually every poor family in America off the tax rolls entirely. And a working family with two or three children would pay less than a 10 percent income tax on its earnings well into the $25,000 to $30,000 range.
And he was right: President Reagan's Tax Reform Act of 1986 increased the personal exemption and standard deduction - measures that completely eliminated the income tax burden of some low-income filers.